Short Stories, Plays, Process: An Interview With Playwright Penny Jackson

Penny and self have been friends for a long, long, long time. Since before either of us were even married.

Self remembers having Penny over to her little one-bedroom in Menlo Park. She met Thomas, Penny’s then-boyfriend, soon-to-be-husband.

We were in the Stanford Creative Writing Program together. Penny lived in the City. She hitched rides to the writing workshops with Jeffrey Eugenides and his dog. They split on the gas.

In recent years, Penny has been writing plays at a terrific rate. Her most recent production was during last fall’s Solo Festival in New York City.

Self wrangled an interview out of Penny. No mean feat, as Penny is terrifically busy. Here are some of her answers to self’s questions:

What attracts you to playwriting as a form as opposed to, say, writing a novel or a short story? What was the first genre you started writing?

I first began writing stories when I was in college (Barnard). I am very comfortable with writing in short forms, and I have adapted three of my plays from three stories, All Alices, Louise in Charlestown, and Before, which have worked very well onstage. Although I wrote a novel, Becoming the Butlers (published by Bantam when Penny was a 20-something), I find writing a novel to be more challenging. Keeping track of the plot and characters over a length of time is difficult. Perhaps I like playwriting now because each scene is like a short story to me, with a beginning, middle, and end. That’s not to say I won’t return to novel writing. I still love fiction writing, and unlike playwriting, you have a sense of control you have to somewhat relinquish when you hand your play over to your director and actors.

Are there conditions that need to be present before you feel you can write your best?

Absolute quiet and no distractions. I joined The Writers Room, which provides a haven for writers. I wish sometimes that the Internet did not exist. When I was at MacDowell, there was no Internet, and I could really focus.

What keeps you writing?

The world. I am inspired all the time by the news and what I see in the city and hear from my friends. I write to be able to understand the complexities, the unfairness, and also the joys of life. If I didn’t write, I think I would go a bit crazy. I hear the same sentiment from actors: if they don’t act, they can’t handle the world. Right now I’m sick about the gun violence in our country, and writing about the issue really helped me with my sadness and disgust at our politicians.

What is the biggest difference between playwriting now and playwriting when you were just starting out? Does it get easier? Why or why not?

Playwriting is becoming somewhat easier. I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to work with several brilliant directors, actors, and dramaturges. I understand the form better now. What is not easier is finding a theatre to produce your plays if you are a female writer who is not a recent Yale graduate. Ageism and sexism very much exist in theatres, when I began and still today.

Do you experiment with form and/or dialogue? Who or what inspires you?

Because I’m trained in fiction writing, which is character-based, I always begin with people. An old lady drinking in a decrepit Irish bar. Two teenage girls talking to a mysterious older man at Starbucks. A drag queen waiting for his show in Las Vegas and having to talk to his daughter about marriage.

I love dialogue. I write down snippets of dialogue I overhear in the streets of New York City all the time. And if you follow me on Facebook, you can frequently read about remarkable conversations with New York cab drivers.

In your opinion, what is the best play ever written?

I am a huge Eugene O’Neill fanatic, so I will say Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Family secrets and family guilt and pure poetic language. But of course, King Lear is top of the canon. King Lear howling about his dead daughter still takes my breath away.

Which playwright has taught you the most about your craft?

Rogelio Martinez is a wonderful playwright who has taught me so many important aspects about playwriting. I also love the Lark Development Center which gives you the space and time to try out new works in a safe environment.

Did you have a mentor? Do you think playwrights need one?

Yes, having a mentor is important. So many women directors have been my mentors: Joan Kane, Gloria Kadigan, and Shira-Lee Shalit are three tremendously talented women artists who inspire and instruct me. Writing is a very lonely business. You need a cheerleader!

What’s the worst thing about being a playwright?

That it’s just too damn expensive to produce a play in America. Unlike Europe, we don’t have government funding for theatre. The costs are astronomical. As a female playwright, I face other challenges. Walk down Broadway or The West End. Do you see any female playwrights on the marquee? My organization, The League of Professional Theatre Women, is working so hard for gender equality in theatre, but it’s a very long, frustrating, and seemingly endless battle.

 

 

Stanford East Asian Studies

Self has never been to a Stanford Alumni Homecoming. Not one. Even though her house is only six miles from Stanford.

Today, to honor how her parents supported her through a masters in East Asian Studies, concentration in Chinese, she picks up one of her East Asian Studies textbooks: China’s Imperial Past: An Introduction to Chinese History and Culture, by Charles O. Hucker.

p. 208:

The Buddha won converts in part because it is clear that his was an electric personality. But he also had a superb intellect, and his conception of the human condition was at once breathtakingly brilliant and utterly simple. Its essence is: There is no Brahma; there is no Atman. What keeps you in this world of illusion, propelling you from one life to the next, is no more than your own craving for existence and for self-ness. If you really want to get off the merry-go-round of endless suffering and rebirth, then realize you are on it only because you want to be. To get off, all you have to do is let go!

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

 

And, Once More Unto the Breach

Benefits of being a lifetime member of the Stanford Alumni Association (A Message from the Director of the Association). This is rather a quaint little benefit that self has never had to avail of. Nevertheless, while cleaning out a drawer, she found this note and read it again:

Enclosed is your Stanford Alumni Association key tag, engraved with your life membership number. Please use your six digit life membership number whenever you correspond with the Stanford Alumni Association or use your member benefits.

Your specially coded tag can help you recover your keys, should you ever lose them. If someone finds your keys, all they have to do is drop them in any mailbox. The Alumni Association will guarantee postage and contact you for instructions on how to return them.

Your key tag is your lifetime gift from the Stanford Alumni Association. Please contact us if it becomes lost or damaged, and we’ll replace it free of charge! Let us know when you change your address or telephone number so we can contact you if your keys are returned.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

 

Preparing for the New Year

An excerpt from Song Lyric # 43 by 12th century Chinese poet Li Qingzhao:

I’ve heard spring is still lovely at Twin Streams,
I’d like to go boating in a light skiff there
But fear the tiny grasshopper boats they have
Would not carry
Such a quantity of sorrow.

A book by Stanford Professor of Sinology Ronald Egan, The Burden of Female Talent: The Poet Li Qingzhao and Her History in China (Harvard Asia Center, 2013), analyzes her legacy.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Great Article: Thank You VF.Com

It starts with a training seminar at Stanford. One of those that Stanford makes its employees take to highlight an issue: in this case, sexual harassment. It begins with some chit-chat about high jinks at a primate research center.

A primate research center.

Bet the woman leading the seminar never expected to be the lead-in to an article about the “spiraling Stanford sex scandal.”

Self must admit, when she saw the headline of the VF.com article, she had to do a double-take.

Unfortunately for the hapless seminar leader, there was a plant.

Who began by asking a seemingly innocent question:

“So the policy that Stanford has actually says that where such a recusal is required you must notify your supervisor, department chair, or dean,” he said. “What if the person involved is the Dean?”

No problemo. The seminar leader says, without batting an eyelash: You should go straight to the provost.

The man presses on: “Suppose Ed was a Dean and Melissa was a senior faculty member who was married to another senior faculty member and Ed was involved in a relationship with Melissa. Ed would have to recuse himself from making decisions about both Melissa and her husband?”

“Do you know something I don’t know?” the seminar leader asks.

The man says he might.

“Don’t out him or her here!” the seminar leader (who happens to be a lawyer) says quickly.

Laughter.

Self thinks that seminar leader is quite charming. Very snappy and quick in her responses. She seems to be kidding when she tells the question man: “You and I need to talk outside!”

Read the rest of the delicious story here.

Kudos, writer David Margolick.

Stay tuned.

I WILL NEVER OWN ENOUGH BOOKS Spreads AmazeSauce over Self’s Saturday!

Today, I Will Never Own Enough Books nominated self for the CREATIVE BLOGGER AWARD!

Epic Blush!

The rules say that self has to share five facts about herself. So here goes:

  1. Her favorite indulgence is reading Everlark fan fiction.
  2. She was a Fellow in the Stanford University Creative Writing Program.
  3. Her 2nd favorite indulgence is watching plays. The last play she saw (July 2015) was “King John” at the Globe in London.
  4. She loves riding trains.
  5. She has written a 9/11 story called “Wavering” (Published in a literary magazine now defunct, boo).

So here are self’s five nominees:

  1. TheGypsyMind16
  2. The Alchemist’s Kitchen
  3. Kick-Ass Ireland!
  4. cassandra jp
  5. Kahakai Kitchen

Onward!

Stanford Creative Writing: How Self Came To Be

Self is thinking this more and more: how different her life would have been if she hadn’t taken that summer creative writing class from John L’Heureux, who was the Director of the Stanford Creative Writing Program back then.

He told self she should try applying, and since she didn’t have anything better to do (BWAH. HA. HA), she did. And lo and behold, she got a fellowship.

That’s how she met Penny Jackson, Beth Coryell Alvarado, Ehud Havazelet, and Jeffrey Eugenides.

Now, she’s checking out the Stanford Creative Writing Program website, which she only does about twice a year. She discovers that the Program’s been at Stanford “for more than 50 years,” and that it was founded by Wallace Stegner in 1946.

Well, I’ll be darned.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Orange 3: Various Settings

No matter how many times self watches the sunset here, she will never tire of it. It is always beautiful.

Mendocino Sunset

Mendocino Sunset

DSCN8723

For a change of pace, something NOT Mendocino. In case dear blog readers are wondering: the tiles. Orange much? Kidding.

Cubberley, Stanford campus: the day self spoke to Valerie Miner's students

Cubberley, Stanford campus: the day self spoke to Valerie Miner’s students

She wore a red top that day (Because the Stanford color is Cardinal). And the first thing Prof. Valerie Miner told her when they met up at the Faculty Club was: “I know where you got that. Mendocino. The Great Put-On. I have one just like it.”

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Reflections, Yesterday

Feb. 12, 2015: Saw this outside the Stanford Bookstore.

Feb. 12, 2015: Saw this outside the Stanford Bookstore.

It was warm yesterday! While walking around the Stanford University campus, self saw that someone had stuck glittery red hearts around the planter box in front of the Bookstore. The Post Office looked exactly the same. They’re tearing down Meyer. Which means self will have to re-write the stories she’s set there. Yes, she does have stories set in Meyer Library.

The students she spoke to yesterday certainly made her think. Yes, she told them, the stories in Mayor of the Roses were written while she worked at Stanford at various administrative jobs.

Did you ever go to The Bridge (24-hour free counseling service on campus), someone asked. Of course! self replied. Didn’t everybody?

Self told the students that she had a more recent story about the Bridge, but in tone the story is as different from the one in Mayor of the Roses as night and day. In self’s story, which appeared in Waccamaw, the Bridge is a counseling hot-line called 1-800-U-R-Saved. The story is “Bridging.”

She talked about her Creative Writing Program years, and how she felt at the time she wrote the stories in the collection. She really really wanted to take a picture of Professor Miner’s copy of Mayor of the Roses because it was completely marked up. Notes on the margins, arrows pointing every which way. Looked like a piece of post-modern art.

She told the students she was writing science fiction now.

The time was really too short.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Yellow: Weekly WordPress Photo Challenge

The Daily Post’s Photo Challenge this week is YELLOW.

Participating bloggers are asked to post something focusing on the color yellow, whether it be lemons. Or flowers. Or sunlight.

Self’s 1st example of yellow is a tablecloth. The table was on the Venice Beach Pier:

DSCN7795

Her 2nd example of yellow is a lit corridor in the History Corner of the Main Quad, Stanford University campus. Self took the picture one evening last fall when she was on her way to Annenberg to catch a Robert Frank documentary on the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street tour:

DSCN7440

Finally: sunflowers. Self bought a bunch one day from her local farmers market:

DSCN7054Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

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